BY EDWARD YERANIAN IN CAIRO – Libyan rebels have retaken several coastal towns leading to Sirte, amid bombing support by coalition warplanes.
Libyan rebel forces made a series of quick advances, re-occupying the strategic oil ports of Ras Lanouf and Brega, which they lost almost 10 days ago. Witnesses say pro-government forces withdrew without a fight. Some soldiers who stayed behind surrendered.
Al-Arabiya TV showed images of burned out government tanks and military vehicles along the coastal highway to Ras Lanouf. It also showed footage of British planes bombing several pro-Gadhafi targets.
Rebel fighters told al-Jazeera TV their next major push would be on the port city of Sirte, the symbolic hometown of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. A former army colonel who defected to the rebels indicated Gadhafi loyalists had placed landmines on the outskirts of Sirte.
Closer to the capital Tripoli, witnesses in the besieged port city of Misrata told al-Jazeera TV that pro-Gadhafi snipers continued to attack them using artillery and sniper fire. Water and electricity remain cut and living conditions are increasingly desperate. A group of Egyptian workers in the city begged their government to help evacuate them and their families.
Libyan government TV broadcast images of Gadhafi supporters chanting and dancing as they waved posters of the embattled leader. Some supporters read tributes to Mr. Gadhafi and pledged loyalty to him, despite recent military setbacks.
A top government spokesman, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim, complained to journalists in Tripoli the Western coalition is “trying to push the country to the brink of civil war.”
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS’ Face the Nation program Colonel Gadhafi’s attacks on his own people far outweighed military actions by the coalition. “What has been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there is a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities than police actions, which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see,” she said.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also told CBS’ Face the Nation the outcome of the conflict in Libya is uncertain, but there is a strong possibility that Gadhafi supporters would desert him as the military pressure on him continued. “Any number of possibilities are out there, particularly as long as the international pressure continues and those around him see no future in staying with him. Do not underestimate the potential for elements of the regime themselves to crack and to turn,” he said.
Gates also defended the fact the coalition has not outlined a clearly defined set of goals in its Libya mission, insisting that “in a military campaign you do not set as a mission or a goal something you are not sure you can achieve.